Monday, September 26, 2011

Augury - Old Dragon (Old School brazilian RPG)

Before I being this review I’d like to talk a little about D&D (and RPGs in general) here in Brazil.

The first D&D ever translated in these shores was the 15th revision of the Basic Rule Set (the black box with the huge red dragon facing the faux-viking warrior). That was in the mid ‘90s. A few years later it was the time for AD&D 2nd (the revised “2.5” Edition core books). These were the portuguese versions; by then, we had already brazilian “grognards”, usually College players that had access to the original games at the ‘80s – something very hard to get here. If I’m not mistaken they played mostly AD&D 2nd, Call of Cthulhu and GURPS.

Today we have 3rd, 3.5 and the 4th Edition all translated to portuguese (but unfortunately no Pathfinder).

The D&D Black Box was, probably, the most famous entry-level RPG here in Brazil before local games (like Arcanum and 3D&T) got famous. Most of the Black Box’s adherents quickly jumped to AD&D 2nd, when it was translated.

As a site note, AD&D 2nd was launched in the second half of the ‘90s – the brazilian “Golden Age” of RPG – when most of the big national publishers thought the RPGs were the next “big hit” among teens. However, it all ended quickly when the books didn’t become instant best-sellers. Ironically mimicking the USA ‘80s witch hunt against D&D, a few years later RPGs were used by defense lawyers (and the media, and local churches… all the usual suspects) as the leading reason for a teen homicide committed in a graveyard (with hints of “satanic sacrifice”) in the city of Ouro Preto – at the time the most famous RPGs around here was Vampire the Masquerade and other White Wolf games. Because of the bad connection, RPGs were quickly shut out of the market. At the time I was living at Vila Velha, where the local assemblyman (desiring to easily gather votes with the ignorant and poor religious portion of the city population) even made a (terribly written and judicially hilarious) law forbidding the selling of RPGs. [Oh, and if you’re interested, the crime at Ouro Preto that generated all this irrational vitriol ended being a murder motivated by drugs; RPGs got in just because one of the suspects played Vampire and the responsible commissioner was a religious fanatic asshole desiring media attention.]

Ok, that was a little more than I intended… let’s get back to the review.

 So, with that background in mind, it was recently released the first brazilian retro-clone – Old Dragon, by the new Redbox Company. Actually, calling it a retro-clone is a bit misleading in my opinion. While Old Dragon does try to emulate the “feel” of the first editions of D&D, it’s mechanically influenced by the late editions and it lacks many elements of the first games – like races as classes, multiclass rules and treasure as XP. In this aspect it’s easy to see how Old Dragon was influenced by AD&D 2nd and D&D 3rd.

Let’s take a closer look.

Old Dragon is sold as a beautiful B&W booklet of 150 pages, with a simple yet charming red cover, showing a group of adventurers with an Old School visual.

OD’s introduction is dedicated to explaining what an “Old School” game is all about and, in this regard, this little book is pure golden – it neatly introduces the ideas promoted by the OSR, a movement that is sorely missing from the brazilian RPG community.

Old Dragon’s Ability Score rules go from 1 to 29 and looks like a simplified take on AD&D 2nd (although Charisma influences the potency of Turn Undead – a 3rd Edition influence). Ability checks are done with a d20 and you must roll under your Ability Score to succeed; however, conflicts between characters are done differently – both roll a d20 and add their Ability Scores with success going to the highest result.

Old Dragon has rules for humans, dwarves, elves and halflings. We see (again) a little of 3rd Edition here, with racial modifiers giving +2/-2 bonus. For example, humans assign a +2 and a -2 to two Scores of their choice; and dwarves gain +2 to Constitution and -2 to Charisma, besides slower movement, darkvision and the ability to detect stone traps (1-2 on a d6).

Elves in OD have a very odd racial trait (no pun intended): their maximum class Hit Dice can’t be higher than a d8 (with hinders Elf fighters). Remember: Elves here a just a race and can’t multiclass.

Halflings are psychologically based on their 3rd Edition version but (thanks Eru!) have the traditional Middle-Earth visual.

Ok, now classes.

Old Dragon uses a unified Saving Throw, like Swords & Wizardry; besides an ascending AC and Attack Bonus. We have rules for Clerics, Fighters, Wizards and Rogues. Fighters get a second iterative attack at 7th and Clerics have an optional rule that allows them to convert prepared spells to healing. The most famous addition here is Specializations.

Specializations are subclasses that every character can take at 5th level and they’re my second favorite aspect of Old Dragon (I’ll get to the first later).

Clerics can become Druids (Neutral) or Cultists (Chaotic); Fighters can become Paladins (Lawful), Warriors (Neutral) or Barbarians (Chaotic); Wizards can become Illusionists (Neutral) or Necromancers (Chaotic); and Rogues can become Rangers (Lawful), Explorers (Lawful), Bards (Neutral) or Assassins (Chaotic).

The Specializations cleverly use Alignments to better characterize them and limit a player’s choice. I must also stress that they’re totally optional – each Specialization has advantages and drawbacks. They’re just a terrific idea that gives a lot of flavor to Old Dragon. They also present new ways of playing old concepts – the Rogue Specializations are the most interesting (like the Ranger and the Bard).

Old Dragon combat and exploration rules don’t deviate from your typical retro-clones; their complexity is a lot closer to D&D than AD&D. However, there’re optional rules here and there – like a Critical Hit and a Fumble Table. The notorious differences are that OD uses rounds of 6 seconds and an Initiative rule which takes in account a weapon’s reach and bulk. The rules are always repeated and resumed through nice boxes or diagrams, with makes reading easier and enjoyable.

Old Dragon monsters have their Ability Scores listed, something that I admit don’t liking in retro-clones – albeit in this case they’re, thankfully, the most complex aspect of each creature. The book’s bestiary also has some pleasant surprises like Starspawns, Shoggoths, Deeper Ones and Cthulhu himself (and I must point out that we got our first portuguese RPG about Cthulhu only recently with Kenneth Hite’s amazing Trails of Cthulhu published by Retropunk).

Now its time for my second favorite rule of Old Dragon: magic items. Most magic items in OD are divided by alignments and this little detail gives to them an entire new flavor. For example: Lawful weapons give a fixed bonus, while Chaotic weapons have more power but also a drawback; and all magic Rings influence the behavior of their bearers either to Law or Chaos. All items have the same alignment of their creator.

Old Dragon is a great surprise in the brazilian RPG scene. Only know we’re beginning to see here the small, creator-owned games, which are famous around both the Forge and OSR movements. Old Dragon has an excellent product value for its art, rules and content and I hope that the authors decide to launch an english version for PDF. While it isn’t perfect (I surely miss multiclass rules, at least for Elves), it’s a nice game that can contribute to other retro-clones and Old School campaigns. Redbox so far has released a lot of free supplements with optional rules and systems and they’re launching also the first adventure, inspired by The Keep on the Borderlands. At least now I’ve some hope of finally finding players for my Old School game.